Thursday, 27 August 2015

Reflections on Ravilious at Dulwich

Ship's Screw on a Railway Truck, 1940 (Ashmolean)
Now that the Ravilious show is nearly over, I wanted to say thankyou to everyone who made the minor trek to Dulwich this summer.** Do go and see their MC Escher exhibition, which is coming up next - it should make a fascinating follow-up to Ravilious.

I still can't quite believe people have been queuing up for Rav, but perhaps I'm looking at this the wrong way round. Perhaps we should be marveling that it has taken so long for such a wonderful artist to achieve deserved public recognition - not that it's particularly unusual for an artist to achieve renown long after their death. To take one example, Vermeer was just one 17th century Dutch artist among many until his cause was taken up two hundred years later.

I was surprised by the enthusiastic response shown by critics to the exhibition, which I think bodes well for the continuing reassessment of 20th century British art, particularly figurative painting of the 1920s and 1930s. I'm looking forward to the David Jones exhibition coming up at Pallant House in October, which promises to be filled with rarely-seen wonders.

The beautiful new book on his work as a watercolourist and printmaker, by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, makes for interesting comparison with the Ravilious catalogue, especially as Rav was a big fan of Jones and visited his London shows in the late 1920s.

It seems a long time since I walked into the exhibition rooms at Dulwich to see the paintings all lined up against the walls, still in their crates and boxes. For the previous eighteen months I had been moving thumbnail images of the pictures around a scale plan of the gallery, which was stuck with blutac all over the landing walls. Every now and again a picture would fall off, to be transported on the sole of someone's foot around the house, so that tiny planes and greenhouses would turn up in the most unlikely places. To see the pictures as large as life and all together was very moving.

I imagined that the hang would bring some kind of closure, but the opposite was true. Being able to look at so many watercolours up close I saw so much that I had missed; I wanted to rewrite the catalogue there and then, but I don't think the publishers would have let me. Then there were all the observations made by critics and visitors, which in many cases made me look at a picture afresh. More than ever I appreciate that anyone with an intelligent gaze can add to our understanding of an artist or their work.

Finally, it has been extraordinary to meet so many people through the exhibition: lenders, fellow writers, artists, enthusiasts. On one memorable occasion I stood in front of a painting with the son of a naval officer portrayed in the picture. More recently I had a letter from a woman whose mother is, in all likelihood, one of the staff shown in the underground control rooms - of which more anon...

** According to Dulwich Picture Gallery, over 85,000 people visited the Ravilious show, their highest every turn-out!


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Postcard from the Isle of Wight

Finally had a full week away and am now able to string a sentence together again. Must have been quite tired after putting on Ravilious show, but a week on Wight has set me straight. I can't believe it's taken me this long to cross the Solent, especially as we went to Poole every summer for years when I was a kid, but I think I know why I failed to discover the island before now: it's because of the Beatles.

Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight
If it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck & Dave

In my mind these lyrics got scrambled perhaps, so that I imagined an island entirely populated by people with cheery old-fashioned names, all scrimping away. Not a very glamourous picture.

At first sight the island didn't seem any different to 'the mainland' (ie the rest of Britain). Red brick houses, mini-roundabouts, Waitrose, lots of trees. Driving on the left seemed disappointing, as did the excessively regimented, hedge-bound campsite we had booked. Rather more startling was the nearby town of Shanklin, which ought to be made a World Heritage Site for its concentration of thatched tea shops.

The fabulous Compton Bay

It took a day or two, but we gradually discovered another Wight, away from the yachts and caravans, the tea shops and bizarrely named amusement parks - fancy a day at Blackgang Chine anyone? Ventnor, a town that sounds as though it belongs in a Terry Pratchett story, offered impressive Victorian buildings and family-owned shops - a feature of the island generally. Saturday afternoon everything seemed to be shut by 4 (except for the inevitable Tesco Express). We had fish and chips on the Esplanade, looking out over the sea with a simultaneous sunset/moonrise for atmosphere and about a million less people than you would find in, say, Lyme Regis.

Barbara Jones was a fan of the island

My favourite region of this surprisingly magical island was the south west coast. We did try to see the Needles but were stymied by thick fog. Instead we went bodyboarding in the rain in Compton Bay, which ought to be in a Top Fifty British Beaches, and probably is. There's a campsite above it which seemed impressively bleak in the generally grim weather; behind a farm which should be used as the set next time someone films 'Cold Comfort Farm'. Geese guarded the approach, while a turkey glared out from an open shed. Fabulous.

Having taken the tent down in an outrageous downpour we sought shelter in the lovely Piano Cafe in Freshwater Bay, surely a building dating from the island's late Victorian heyday, then walked up onto the downs to visit the Tennyson Memorial, put up to commemorate his years living in Freshwater.

I studied the gloomy laureate for A Level but could only remember:

She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said,
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

This was deemed too miserable for a (now) sunny day. To which I ought to have responded with this...

Break, break, break, 
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! 
And I would that my tongue could utter 
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy, 
That he shouts with his sister at play! 
O, well for the sailor lad, 
 That he sings in his boat on the bay! 

And the stately ships go on 

 To their haven under the hill; 
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand, 
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break 
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea! 
But the tender grace of a day that is dead 
Will never come back to me.
Back in Bristol the drizzle is a-drizzling and it doesn't look like we will ever be able to get through the inevitable mountain of post-camping laundry. Meanwhile, the Ravilious show is about to end, and we're putting the finishing touches to 'The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden'. More about that soon.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Ravilious on Film: Dangerous Work at Low Tide

Here's the third part of the film shot at Dulwich Picture Gallery by the splendid Acap Media. Great close-ups of several lovely paintings from the last room of the Ravilious exhibition: Darkness and Light.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Summer at the RWA, feat. James Ravilious

James Ravilious, Archie Parkhouse & his dog Sally, copyright Beaford Arts
Exhibition launches at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol are always fun, partly because the building is so impressive and the staff so cheerful, but mostly because the work on display is so varied. This time around there are three exhibitions, linked by a broad theme but otherwise remarkably diverse.

This being Bristol's year of being European Green Capital the three exhibitions are united by the artists' shared interest in nature and our relationship with the natural world.

In the main room, with its wonderful high ceiling and natural light, are gigantic works on paper by Peter Randall-Page RWA and (as of last week) RA, across which flow great tributaries, or family trees, or neural pathways in brown or black ink. Pattern and order on the one hand, freedom on the other, combining to give an impression of organic systems.

One work forms a screen, behind which lurk other, rather different forms. Actually some of these are beautiful, while others recall Surrealist fantasies of creatures alarmingly combined. It would really spoil the surprise if I described them. Suffice to say, Kate MccGwire must spend an awful lot of time collecting feathers, while the installation of her gorgeous-but-monstrous creations is surely a logistical nightmare.

James Ravilious, John Bennett, traveller, copyright Beaford Arts
In a way the world of James Ravilious is equally strange. No fantasy here, mind you. His photographs, taken in the last quarter of the last century, represent real places and real people, all (as far as I remember) in rural North Devon. The strangeness is found partly in the subject matter, a hands-on country life far removed from modern urban existence, and partly in the photography itself.

Although he chose photography over drawing or painting, James shared important qualities with his father Eric (who died, it should be noted, when he was only three), such as clarity of focus, a powerful sense of structure and a willingness to work with the sun in his eyes. Here and there one can see the influence of Edwin Smith, whom James got to know through Peggy Angus, but most of the work is unmistakeably, charismatically his.

One of Eric's less well known skills lay in making friends with people - the owners of greenhouses or abandoned lighthouses, patrons, etc - and in his decades taking photographs for the Beaford Archive James demonstrated an even greater sociability. Rather than snap people anonymously he got to know them, often very well, so that they trusted him and were themselves in front of his camera. Go and have a look, and if you know anyone who is studying photography tell them they HAVE to go.

Laura Knight, Spring, 1916-20, Tate
Finally, through the heavy door and into the climate-controlled rooms, where paintings from (or loosely associated with) the Newlyn School are on display. Instead of fishing boats and bays here are fields, farms and working people, the same kind of people portrayed by James Ravilious but romanticised somewhat. The colours throughout are fresh, the mood generally light, with the freshest, lightest painting of all being Laura Knight's effervescent 'Spring'.